The newly conservative-leaning Supreme Court on Wednesday heard arguments in its first abortion case: June Medical Services v. Russo. For abortion-rights supporters, the case is a reminder that Roe v. Wade may not need to be challenged for abortion access to be dramatically restricted.
At issue Wednesday was Louisiana’s “Unsafe Abortion Protection Act,” a law that requires doctors who provide abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Supporters of the law say its intention is to improve patient safety. But pro-abortion rights advocates warn the law would shut down abortion clinics, not just in Louisiana, but nationwide.
In their questioning, the female justices on the court focused on the practicality of the law and the impact it would have. Under the law, doctors who provide abortion would need admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic, but as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted, most complications from abortion, especially ones delivered by pill, happen after a patient leaves a clinic. In Louisiana, where there are only three clinics in the entire state, that could be hours away.
“That’s what I don’t understand,” Ginsburg said in court Wednesday. “She’s not going to be at the clinic.”
Liz Murrill, Louisiana’s solicitor general, defended the state law on Wednesday. She argued that the admitting-privileges requirement serves multiple functions: providing for the safety of abortion patients, as well as creating a credentialing system for doctors who provide the procedure.
Julie Rikelman, an attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights and the counsel challenging the law, as well as several justices, noted that the regulation was similar to a Texas law that was struck down by the Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.
“Why depart from what was pretty good precedent?” Justice Stephen Breyer said to Murrill, asking what other abortion-related precedents the court would need to address if it were to uphold Louisiana’s regulation.
Abortion-rights supporters worry about the conservative shift of the court since Whole Woman’s Health was decided, with the additions of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. During the oral arguments, Kavanaugh kept his questions limited, asking only two.
Louisiana has just three abortion clinics. If the Supreme Court finds Louisiana’s law constitutional, all of them would stop offering the procedure, as first reported by CBS News. The court’s ultimate decision is expected early this summer.